In May 2016, a group of dazed but ecstatic Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel after a long trip that was the culmination of over two years of planning. Among their possessions was a very rare deerskin Sefer Torah, claimed by some to be 800 years old. The successful aliyah of this family angered the Yemeni authorities and their Iranian backers, and a young Jewish Yemenite named Levi Marhabi was arrested on suspicion of aiding the Jews’ departure with the scroll, which they consider a “national Yemeni treasure.”
Marhabi was recently sentenced to two years in prison, and Moti Kahana believes that returning the Torah to Yemen could bring about his release. With his many international ties throughout the United States and the Middle East, Kahana is working on a way to free Marhabi.
What follows is the background to this complex story.
A number of years ago, I visited Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and after a series of inquiries and searches I found the area where the Jews of the city were living. They no longer resided in the Harat al-Yahud, the old Jewish neighborhood in the western part of the city, but in a modern, upscale district of the capital, ensconced in a resort hotel complex, called Tourist City, frequented by Western diplomats and affluent tourists. Across from the compound is the American Embassy, which looks more like a formidable fortress surrounded by a high, impenetrable wall. The hotel complex is also adjacent to a large military base, protected by armed soldiers and guard posts.
When I tried to enter the hotel grounds, soldiers stopped and asked me, “Are you staying here? Because if not, you have to get entry permits from the Ministry of Tourism and the police.” As I doubted I would ever get such permits, I tried to bluff my way in, introducing myself as a tourist from the UK who was looking to rent a room in the resort. It worked. The gates opened and I found myself inside. I was able to rent a small one-room apartment for two days.
As soon as I had arranged my things, I went to look for the Jews who were being housed in Tourist City, and I soon found them. There were dozens of families concentrated in a number of apartments on the western side of the sprawling compound. In a hot, dusty yard, I saw a number of Yemenite children playing—boys with peyos and girls wearing the karkush, a traditional Yemeni hood.
Inside one of the houses facing the yard, the father of the family, Suleiman Salem, was sitting on a mattress chewing qat, a popular, mildly narcotic leaf chewed by Yemeni men. Beside him was Aharon Zindani, one of the younger leaders of the community. There was a palpable weariness in the room, a feeling of interminable waiting. “Soon,” they said, “we’re going home.”
But by “home” they did not mean Eretz Yisrael. They were referring to the northern Yemeni province of Saada. Aharon told me that he had immigrated to Israel in the 1990s, but he could not acclimate and had returned to Yemen. “I went to Israel and lived in Rechovot, but it was very difficult for me to find a job, and I was not treated well,” he said. “Whenever I applied for any assistance from government offices, they kept telling me, ‘Come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow.’ So I decided to come back to Yemen.”
That was a few years ago; today there is chaos in Yemen. Sana’a International Airport is closed; no planes go in or out. Armed gangs roam the streets as a long and bitter civil war continues to play out in the alleys of the larger cities. The capital, Sana’a, is constantly bombarded. And in the midst of all this destruction are the last remaining Jews of Yemen, hiding fearfully in their homes.
One group of Jews still lives in the village of Raida, north of Sana’a, which I visited during my trip. They had an active shul and a small cheder; another small group lives in the Tourist City compound in Sana’a, five or six clans, all members of the extended Marhabi family. Rabbi Yosef Marhabi, the last rabbi in Sana’a, is keeping the community together with great difficulty.
As for Aharon, the man I met when I was there, he later met a terrible fate. And another young Jew, Levi Marhabi, who had also gone to Israel and returned to Yemen—bringing back a negative report about his time in Israel as well—is now sitting in a Yemeni prison under terrible conditions, for reasons that came as a surprise to everyone who knows him.